Arden of Faversham
Shakespeare or Not, This Is a Good One
Brave Spirits Theatre, Atlas Performing Arts Center, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, April 9, 2015, second row, middle seats of studio theater
Directed by Dan Crane
Mosby (Willem Krumich) and Alice (Victoria Reinsel) share a tender moment during the "argument scene" in Brave Spirits' production of Arden of Faversham, a scene which might have been written by William Shakespeare. Below, Shakebag (Samantha Sheahan) and Black Will (Teresa Spencer). Photos by Kevin Hollenbeck, Brave Spirits.
A greedy real estate developer's spoiled housewife is carrying on an affair with a young stud working-class Joe. A sleazy victim of the developer's land grab joins with the two adulterers in a conspiracy to murder the old guy, and they hire a couple of inept street hoods to do the hit. This script, which might be written for a USA Network detective show, was printed in 1592—the first crime procedural in the English language, according to Shakespeare scholars Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen—and recounts the actual 1551 murder of Thomas Arden of Faversham as reported in Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It also may be William Shakespeare's first composition.
Arden of Faversham, as Brave Spirit's current production at Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C., proves, is a real potboiler of a play, with sharp comedy, keenly written characters, and a solid script. The play itself marked a significant first in Elizabethan theater as a tragedy featuring everyday people in a small-town English setting rather than mythological heroes in ancient places. No author has ever been attached to its publication, and it has no record of theatrical performances in Shakespeare's day, but it was republished twice more, in 1599 and 1633. Some scholars detect Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd. Shakespeare as a composition candidate was first put forth in 1770 by one Edward Jacob of Faversham, but more recent scholars also have detected his hand in some scenes, and stylometric studies support those opinions. It's an argument that has merit in my opinion, but we'll engage in that debate later in this review.
The real argument surrounding Arden of Faversham is its moralistic attitude toward women. Get a load of the play's full title as published in the First Quarto of 1592: “The lamentable and true tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham in Kent, who was most wickedly murdered by the means of his disloyal and wanton wife, who for the love she bare to one Mosby, hired two desperate ruffians, Black Will and Shakebag, to kill him, wherein is showed the great malice and dissimulation of a wicked woman, the insatiable desire of filthy lust, and the shameful end of all murderers.”
Dan Crane, director of the Brave Spirits production, creates a prologue by combining this title with the last lines of the play’s epilogue—“Gentlemen, we hope you’ll pardon this naked tragedy wherein no filed points are foisted in to make it gracious to the ear or eye. For simple truth is gracious enough, and needs no other points of glossing stuff”—spoken by Arden’s best friend, Franklin (Nello DeBlasio), who already is assigned to speak the epilogue. With this inserted prologue, Crane is playing up the play's misogynist foundation, which, in turn, points to the play's great conundrum: Alice Arden will have none of it.
In modern dress, Victoria Reinsel portrays Alice as the queen B in the latest installment of Bravo’s popular reality TV franchise, The Real Housewives of Faversham. Dressed in a red and black body-con dress, Reinsel’s Alice slices through the room with seductive authority, playing the purring kitten in one instant, the put-upon wife or mistress in the next, and the impatient would-be murderess when the mood strikes her on the sudden. Her power comes from much more than her prominent bosom, shapely legs, and come-hither twinkle in her smile; she’s intelligent and stubborn, combining in a cunning if not entirely savvy woman. Though this play stakes its moral ground on female inferiority to males' and the wanton ways of women when they are allowed to go unbridled, Alice easily manipulates her husband, Arden (Robert Leembruggen) and her lover, Mosby (Willem Krumich), not with witchcraft or supernatural charms but with guile.
Crane has his actors using British accents, which not only provides the local color of a Kent market town—fitting, given the amazing geographical detail in the script—but also helps in delineating the social castes that are a central element of the play. Money and status is the real measure of morality in Arden of Faversham. Arden, speaking in BBC English, knows his wife is fooling around with Mosby (who, like Alice, talks with a Noël Coward poshness); what goads Arden most is that Mosby is a working stiff who “crept into service of a nobleman” and is now no more than a steward. Arden would be OK if Alice were fooling around with another member of the gentlemen class, at least.
Alice enlists the help and loyalty of both Michael (Grant Cloyd), Arden’s servant, and Clarke (Rich Montgomery), a painter, by promising each of them marriage to her maid, Susan (Morgan Sendek), who is Mosby’s sister. Alice is thus taking advantage of the convention of women as nothing more than property. Speaking in a rural dialect, Dick Greene (Ian Armstrong) is a member of the merchant class as the local landowner who has lost his property due to Arden obtaining “by letters patents from his majesty, all the lands of the Abbey of Faversham” (“his majesty,” by the way, would be young Edward VI). That action cut off all former grants, including Greene’s, feeding his quest for revenge by hiring two local hoodlums, EastEnder-speaking Black Will (Teresa Spencer) and Shakebag (Samantha Sheahan), to kill Arden.
With so many murderers on board, you’d think the play would be over in two scenes; but this is a tragic story with a heart of comedy. Michael turns out to be too much a coward when it comes time to do the deed. The painter Clarke never serves up poison potent enough (the broth merely tastes “unwholesome” to Arden). Black Will and Shakebag, meanwhile, are total screw-ups. They talk themselves up something fierce—“Give my fellow George Shakebag and me twenty angels, and if thou’lt have thy own father slain, that thou mayst inherit his land, we’ll kill him,” Black Will brags to Greene—but they are too inept to really get the job done. Their first attempt fails when a shopkeeper lowers his awning on the hiding Black Will’s head. For the second attempt, they get locked out of the house by Michael. For the third attempt, their ambush is foiled when another Kent nobleman spots them and orders them to go home. The English fog messes up their fourth attempt. They finally manage to spring an attack in their fifth attempt but end up outdueled by Arden and Franklin. “Sirrah Greene, when was I so long in killing a man?” Black Will complains.
Though we know how this tragedy must end—it’s in the historical record, let alone the subtitle—we really begin to wonder if anybody can pull it off. When the deed is finally done, the culprits make such a mess of things that it doesn’t take long for Franklin to figure out the crime. Ever the moralist, Franklin, who has contended that "it is not strange that women will be false and wavering" and preached against jealousy, wraps up the story with his epilogue, listing the fate of the perps a la Dragnet and then points out that "Arden lay murdered in that plot of ground which he by force and violence held from” the rightful landowners. Arden of Faversham’s ultimate moral is that being a greedy developer is at least as bad as being a wanton woman.
The comedy and the action in this production come with a winking, over-the-top aesthete, but that seems inspired by the script. When Mosby argues that he has sworn an oath to Arden to nevermore solicit Alice, she reminds him that she, too, swore an oath to Arden—at the altar of matrimony. “Tush, Mosby, oaths are words, and words is wind, and wind is mutable," she says. "Then I conclude, ‘tis childishness to stand upon an oath.” Upon another sermon from Franklin on how Arden needs to control his wife, Arden replies, “Good counsel is to her as rain to weeds.” After his encounter with the shopkeeper’s awnings, Black Will waxes truly eloquent about his conviction to commit the murder: "I tell thee, Greene, the forlorn traveller, whose lips are glued with summer's parching heat, ne'er longed so much to see a running brook as I to finish Arden's tragedy. See's thou this gore that cleaveth to my face? From hence ne'er will I wash this bloody stain till Arden's heart by panting in my hand." "Why, that's well said,” Greene replies, Armstrong using the shrugging tone of a man who certainly can’t match the hoodlum’s impassioned rhetoric.
Though it touches on farce, this play and Brave Spirit's playing is earnestly done. This cast has serious Shakespeare cred, and as their accents never sound affected (unless intentionally so, as with Mosby), the actors’ verse-speaking skills reveal the text’s richness. Whoever wrote Arden of Faversham was a skilled wordsmith.
By now you might have latched onto some clues that point the way to Shakespeare being that wordsmith. Aside from the title character having the same name as Shakespeare’s mother, the names of the hoodlums are sure to raise an eyebrow. What’s most notable in the names, however, is that while one of the ex-soldiers in the historical account was named Black Will, the other one was Loosebag and is here altered to Shakebag—so, the “Shake” is specific to the play. What may be more instructive is their portrayals, which are similar to that of Cade and his rebels, of Simpox, and of the fighting servants in the Henry VI trilogy, the murderers in Richard III, Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew, and, in a different tone, even Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost. That such characters would be portrayed with a modicum of respect underneath their white trash surfaces is typical of Shakespeare. So is his turning shrews into proto-feminists: Alice joins the company of Kate in Shrew and Margaret in Henry VI as singularly strong women characters in early 1590s Elizabethan theater.
These, though, are speculative arguments. Shakespeare was not just a wordsmith; he was a remarkably skilled one, and it is through the verse-speaking skills of Krumich and Reinsel that we hear Shakespeare emerge in Arden of Faversham. Mosby enters alone at night to speak a soliloquy that begins, “Disturbèd thoughts drives me from company and dries my marrow with their watchfulness, continual trouble of my moody brain feebles my body by excess of drink and nips me, as the bitter north-east wind doth check the tender blossoms in the spring.” The script to this point has been good but sparse with simple employment of metaphors; suddenly, we get the allegorical nesting and adjectives turned to verbs that set Shakespeare apart from his peers. The entire scene, in which Alice joins Mosby and they argue over the status of their relationship, both trying to break it off, both unable to let the other go, continues in this style. Known as the “argument scene” (Scene 8 in the text), this moment struck me as clearly Shakespearean when I attended the Brave Spirits production, the first time I’ve ever experienced the play; only afterward did I learn that this is a scene scholars and style studies likewise have identified as Shakespeare's.
One problem with this argument is the printing date of 1592: the play might have been written as much as five years before. This scene smacks of a more mature Shakespeare than that at the beginning of his career. Certainly, he might have been serving as an editor of scripts for the theater company he was then acting for, and while cleaning up and tightening the rest of the play he might have inserted this scene, hitting a poetic grand slam in this early at bat. Or, perhaps, rather than writing this scene, he was inspired by this passage. I am intrigued most by the play’s second publication date of 1599 when Shakespeare was at the height of his popularity—a timing which fits either scenario of Shakespeare the author of a portion of this play (a printer trotting out a play similar to Shakespeare’s work) or Shakespeare inspired by this play at the moment he was about to write his most masterfully composed works.
Such speculation lends a kind of scavenger hunt fun to Brave Spirit’s production of Arden of Faversham. Instead of fully embracing any theory, I side with Shakespeare editors Bate and Rasmussen who point out that by merely being included in Shakespeare’s apocrypha, Arden of Faversham has received more attention than anonymous plays from 1592 normally would get. That’s fortunate for us. It is a good play, and Brave Spirits does it justice as such.
April 14, 2015